Summary: a quick look at the basis of America’s post-WWII grand strategy, and why it no longer works. Eighth in a series of notes on this topic.
The world is, as it has always been, a maelstrom of fear, hatred, and violence. After WWII American’s dreamed of a new world, one that was not only safe for us but better for everyone. To achieve this we built bases around the world, amassed military force equal in some respects to those of all other nations’ combined, and fought numerous wars – large and small.
With hindsight we can see that the opportunity to remake the world existed only for a golden moment in 1945. With our massive military machine, especially our dominance in the air AND as the sole nuclear power, we could have established a Pax Americana. By 1960 we could have had space platforms armed with atomic weapons enforcing peace between states. That might have allowed civilization (“human rights”), and prosperity (capitalism) to spread throughout the world.
For better or worse – who can say? – we took a softer path.
America’s strategy since 1990, and especially since 2001
What do we find if we “deconstruct” America’s strategy by examining our actions (not words)? America prefers strategies that have some combination of the following characteristics:
- We must take the leading role. Allies must be followers.
- Our plans must have a dynamic, kinetic nature. The best defense is a strong offense. No passive strategies for America; we aggressively interfere in other lands. The soft form of Empire.
- Our diplomacy often uses or threaten to use our massive military machine, a pillar of American power. After all, we borrowed hundreds of billions from Asian central banks to build it, so it must be part of the solution. Since we insist on using a hammer, every problem must be a nail.
- Politicians and bureaucrats craft our strategy, so a large and dominant state must be the solution. For example, the every-growing and more intrusive “Homeland Security” forces – and fewer rights for citizens.
Despite its successes since WWII, the dream has now turned sour. This strategy increasingly looks like a formula for catastrophic defeat.
- It multiplies enemies and alienates friends around an increasingly small world.
- It requires efforts beyond our resources, as if we insanely seek to follow Paul Kennedy’s script for “imperial overstretch” described in the Decline and Fall of Great Powers. Like the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, we are omnipotent in name only — powerful only so long as we get loans from our Asian and OPEC bankers (the 21st century version of the great medieval banking families, such as the Fuggers).
- Instead of a bipartisan policy for national security, growing government power becomes a divisive issue. The very name “Homeland Security” evokes memories of foreign tyrannies. Its actions alienate large elements of population.
- An increasingly centralized structure decreases our security and stability. Decentralized networks make fuller use of our resources, respond faster, and inherently have more stability.
Worst of all, one of the pillars of our power has washed away.
Our Strong Military is a delusion
Yes! where is he, the champion and the child
Of all that’s great or little, wise or wild;
Whose game was empires, and whose stakes were thrones;
Whose table earth — whose dice were human bones?
Behold the grand result in yon lone isle,
And, as thy nature urges, weep or smile.
Sigh to behold the eagle’s lofty rage
Reduced to nibble at his narrow cage
— Excerpt from “The Age of Bronze” by Lord Byron
If the value of something is what it costs, our military would be omnipotent. Unfortunately this is not so in any field, least of all in war. In fact our military is as obsolete as medieval knights in the age of gunpowder, in both cases despite their training, equipment, bravery, and dedication. None of these can overcome failure to adapt by the people at the top of the military hierarchy.
Reluctance to change in the face of obsolescence is a characteristic of modern America, which has – perhaps inevitability — infected military. Everyone knows the pattern, so only a brief description is needed.
- Our automobile companies once dominated the world; now they frantically sell assets to avoid bankruptcy. They specialize in large gas-guzzling vehicles, while foreign companies earn fortunes building small or luxury cars.
- We almost invented modern technology. Now we are a net importer of high-tech goods. The offices of Silicon Valley start-ups house managers, attorneys, and financers … with the hard work done in Asia.
Similarly, America (to identify with our military) is invincible in types of wars no serious enemy will fight in the 21st Century. Hence its record since WWII of one draw (Korea), one loss (Vietnam), no wins. Iraq will soon change the loss column to “two”, esp. if one considers victory to be attainment of strategic goals at a proportionate cost.
We can beat small fry (e.g., Panama, Grenada) and cripples (e.g., the Iraq Army, twice). Our pride in these victories is instructive, especially the last two — wins over a moronically led and poorly equipped army of mostly unwilling to fight conscripts — an army gutted in by the insane ferocity of the 1980-88 war with Iran, and later by UN sanctions.
Since the Defenese and the National Interest site already has many fine articles about the structural problems of the US military, this paper will only briefly describe two aspects of the problem.
1. We have a military too expensive to use in anything but a life and death struggle, like WWII.
To survive lions cannot burn more calories in the chase than they gain from their prey. Wars too must have some rational equivalence between costs and benefit. The Iraq War, the conquest and occupation of a relatively small nation, has costs to date far exceeding any imaginable gain. Most estimates range around $1 trillion, including the long tail of pension/disability costs and replacement of equipment (the cost is uncertain, as even DoD accountants admit their systems cannot produce reliable numbers).
2. We have a military that cannot fight and win the most common wars of our era.
While analysis and proof of this is beyond the scope of this post, one vignette illustrates it. US forces roll up to Baghdad, invincible on the field of battle, occupy it and wait for orders. The capitol falls into disorder, with looting and burning of key infrastructure. The best educated generals in the history of the world failed to prepare for one of the most common scenarios in military history, and watched as an excellent victory tipped over to what will probably be a crushing defeat.
Our military is a full member of 21st Century American society – no separate military culture here – so they can produce industrial-grade excuses suitable for a Superpower, featuring the keynote of the new American anthem: “It’s not our fault.” The experts at RAND said it well…
While it can be argued that U.S. military planners could not have been expected to anticipate the emergence of an insurgency any more than they could have foreseen the widespread disorders, looting, and random violence that followed the fall of Baghdad, that is precisely the nub of the problem. The fact that military planners apparently didn’t consider the possibility that sustained and organized resistance could gather momentum and transform itself into an insurgency reflects a pathology that has long affected governments and militaries everywhere.
— “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq“, Bruce Hoffman, RAND (2004)
RAND’s sponsors likely appreciate the diplomatic phrasing “while it can be argued”. Much nicer than suggesting that for the next war our generals briefing books include DVDs of “War and Peace” and “Gone with the Wind”, to remind them of what often happens following the fall of cities.
In summary, while it can seldom win in the age of 4GW, nor adequately defend us against 4GW threats, our military – as now configured — can make us weaker. By its crushing cost and by its misuse, as we see today in the Middle East.
It gets worse
Other states have developed alternatives tactics to overcome our strengths.
Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance are:
Other posts about grand strategy:
- The Myth of Grand Strategy (31 January 2006)
- America’s Most Dangerous Enemy (1 March 2006)
- Why We Lose at 4GW (4 January 2007)
- America takes another step towards the “Long War” (24 July 2007)
- One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? (28 October 2007)
- How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008)
- How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II (14 June 2008)
- America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past (30 June 2008)
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris (1 July 2008)
- America’s grand strategy, now in shambles (2 July 2008)